— The human papillomavirus is a man's issue.
That's undeniable after Monday's release of a new report that revealed that half of American men might be infected with human papillomavirus. Until then, HPV was thought by most to be a woman’s virus because it causes cervical cancer. That was never true; HPV, which is spread through sexual contact, should always have been as much a male concern as a female concern.
In the past, social conservatives tried to make HPV a culture-war cause, arguing that parents and schools should only teach abstinence and that comprehensive sex education and condom use were false promises. Condoms don’t protect against HPV, they said. That was a lie — condoms offer significant protection against HPV. But now there is an even better weapon against HPV, the new anti-HPV vaccines.
And guys, it's time to get one.
The vaccines, a miracle of cancer prevention, were approved for females and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. When they were approved for boys and men ages 9-26, the news was largely met with “Why bother? Women can get the vaccination.” Now, though, it’s obvious to everyone that HPV is a male issue, too. So get vaccinated or if you are the parent of a boy, have him vaccinated (parents of girls should have them vaccinated too, of course).
First, unlike for women, there is no approved screening test for HPV infection in men. You can’t go to a clinic and find out if you carry it. You won’t know until a lesion shows up on your penis, in your mouth or throat, or in your anus. (Be sure a dentist checks your mouth for cancer at every checkup.) One strain, HPV-16, is thought responsible for cancers in men at all these areas. Head and neck cancer, and anal cancer, are on the rise all over the world because we have a lot more anal and oral sex these days.
Second, if you are or plan to be sexually active at any point, you are going to be exposed to HPV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80 percent of all Americans who have had sex have been, and some scientists say privately the actual figure is more like 100 percent.
The good news is that most HPV infections prompt the body’s immune system to develop antibodies and to clear the infection — no harm, no foul. But Anna Giuliano of Tampa’s H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, who led the new study, told me that men take longer to clear HPV-16, and that some men do not clear it. “These antibodies do not seem to be protective in men…It appears to us that antibodies in men do not confer protection,” the way it does in women, she said.
According to Giuliano, 6 percent of men in her study tested positive for HPV-16 DNA which may or may not signal active infection. That makes HPV a male responsibility that cannot, and should not, be ignored.